Three poems about absence: a creative response to Women’s History Month - A J Moore
AJ Moore’s creative work comprises sequences of poems about domestic objects which aim to create an alternative archive through which the personal becomes an expression of the political including issues of female identity and absence within them.
In a widely-quoted 1990 interview, the poet Susan Howe observes that ‘If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself’.
It is not news to anyone that official records are loaded with absence, with ‘gaps and silences’ surrounding not only women but the myriad individuals historically under-written or homogenised within, or written out of bureaucratic documentation – perhaps due to their gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, disability, neurodivergence (and any combination of these) – to give just a handful of examples which in no way begins to scratch the surface of this issue.
My PhD critical research examines the work of authors including Howe, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine and Jeff Hilson, whose incorporation/citation of materials from a variety of establishment sources which can deny identity (such as media coverage, police reports, bureaucratic documents and historical archives) shines a light on the absences and ideologies they perpetuate and initiates discussions about how and what we record.
The creative element of the project is an attempt to undertake an alternative documenting through everyday items which, I would suggest, can often tell us as much as (more than?) the received narrative. Comprising sequences of prose poems centred on domestic objects (at time of writing bread, candles, bookshelves and plates), it deliberately combines rigid, impersonal language with the informal lexicon of popular culture. Though not exclusively concerned with female identity, several of the poems speak specifically to subjects which – historically, in the present and likely in the future – consistently impact on the female experience.
The three poems below – which consider the weight loss industry, housework and inequality of opportunity – are inspired by a fusion of the private and the public, zeroing in on selected points from the past century, and are offered as a personal creative response to Women’s History Month.
For anyone growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it might have appeared that virtually all the female adults they knew (advertising agencies having yet to recognize the untapped financial potential of targeting weight-conscious men) were on some sort of diet. In this golden age of ‘cutting down’, the slimming bread ruled. The go-to choice for those reluctant to forego the traditional calorie-heavy loaf entirely, its delicate, feathery ubiquity was relentlessly peddled in soft-focus commercials typically featuring bucolic landscapes, hot air balloons, female models with body shapes which conformed to constructed ideals, and a male voice-over. When one studies contemporaneous advertising materials, ‘real’ women and their voices are conspicuous by their absence.
This poem sets out to interrogate the weight loss industry of the era as both a gendered and a class-specific space, targeting an audience of women with the disposable income and time to invest in its specialist food items, recipe books and classes.
Listen to Alison read the poem (m4a, 577KB)
housekeeping won’t stretch to splintered church hall’s draughty weigh-ins but borrowed planner pledges spiral bound salvation [with mix ‘n’ match flip segments] cheerless tallied mealtimes mapped in topaz citrine blush revisiting nightly [with Nationwide school office drama] the edgy post mortem of *what was saved* breakfasts pack-ups bank holiday suppers evaluated benchmarked by BHS one-piece’s brown floral yardstick each serenely hijacked by this incarnation’s grapefruit halves fragile slices scant alpine-fresh foretastes of fibre shakes flakes whisper [re]renewed optimism light-baked strip-lit shelved between Mothers Pride® Sunblest® stale last-ditch sacrament of low-cal assurance skimmed milk tea stocked up [Thursdays] from Challenge endorsed consecrated in clipped gallant RP *don’t forget* and *be smarter* and *scale down* then you too can fly
That dining out glamour
In 1971, Ann Oakley conducted her seminal study The Sociology of Housework, which addressed ‘gaps and silences’, in established sociological practice and in society more generally, by considering housework as actual work (rather than ‘merely as an aspect of the feminine role in the family’). Key among Oakley’s findings were the impact of housework on her participants (feelings of ‘fragmentation’, ‘monotony’ and ‘loneliness’ were commonplace), as well as the punishing nature of weekly hours put in by the women – for most totalling ‘between seventy and eighty-nine’ – way above the average working week in paid employment. Oakley’s research chimed with an already growing sense that the domestic objects in some of these poems – particularly those set in my childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s – seemed to exude feelings of isolation, despite being apparent symbols of a cosy, happy family life.
The following poem is very much rooted in the era of Oakley’s study, and is partly based on my own experience of the handing on of housework skills.
Listen to Alison read the poem (m4a, 515KB)
That dining out glamour
but it’s raining again so instead tutored housecraft rookie home economics soft cloth initiation naive satisfaction of sponging and sticking its musty-sweet clash [alkyl sulphate gum arabic] pacific sconce shining painstaking collation of Co Op and Green Shield shared ritualised primping of revered wedding gift’s three branched unburned hauteur [in embossed EPNS] for more humble unuse improvised half-term bonding’s wan silverplate stratum layered unaware insight of 77-hour week’s contact hungry routine gnawing wonted monotony foam cleansed fragmentation coated lifted infused with cathartic intrusion [Jimmy Young Maxwell House®] makeshift weekday patina on centuries’ tarnish swabbed buffed up brushed out reapplying the gleam and
Hers for the reading
This final poem considers the inequality of opportunity faced by all working class young people of my grandmother Anne’s generation (she was born in 1916), many of whom were eligible for grammar school scholarships but didn’t attend as this wasn’t help enough to counteract prohibitive uniform and equipment costs and the loss of wage contributions to family finances. I’m including it here as the situation for women must have been doubly challenging: as well as being denied educational ambition, they might (as in Anne’s case) have been working full- or part-time while simultaneously – like the women of Oakley’s study – shouldering almost total responsibility for childcare and housework with no modern appliances to lighten the load.
Through the lens of Anne’s experience, this poem examines the determination, stamina and unshakeable belief in one’s right to learn necessary for those excluded by inadequate provision and class bias.
Listen to Alison read the poem (m4a, 500KB)
Hers for the reading
of pre-Butler exclusion’s retrospective soft-cover DIY education double-stacked library surplus from Collins and Gollancz the fag-melted dust-bloomed clear laminate refuge of Christie and Allingham Sayers and Marsh their easy uncatalogued proud co-existence with OU natural history Say it in Russian treasured disparate gifts from adoring godchildren [a perpetual calendar stranded in May unremarkable pieces of beach-scavenged rock] on patched up re-revarnished mass-produced oak ingested devoured in insomniac down-time from caregiving homemaking swing shifts at Batchelors stalwart cut-price custodian of armchair polymath’s hands-bound boundless third-hand holdings self-homeschooled desire the unceasing *life’s what you make it* lifelong appetite refusal of bitterness unread ambition
Susan Howe interview with Edward Foster, Talisman (1990)
Ann Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (Oxford, Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1985)
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